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The CEO leading self-driving tech really loves to drive

CNN Business takes a ride with Waymo CEO John Krafcik in one of his sports cars. Ironically, this driving enthusiast runs a company that wants to automate driving.

Posted: Nov 21, 2018 1:23 PM
Updated: Nov 21, 2018 1:50 PM

John Krafcik downshifted his white Porsche 911 and whipped it around a curve on a heavily wooded mountain road. The car's 25-year-old engine made its distinctive soft rumble behind us as he accelerated out toward the next turn. For a few moments, we stopped talking. I was enjoying the drive, but also the pleasant irony of it.

That's because Krafcik is the CEO of Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google's parent company, Alphabet.

I first got to know Krafcik years ago when he was the head of Hyundai Motor America. Before that, he had worked at Ford. He owns a small collection of cars that includes two Porsches (neither particularly high-end), a souped up Volvo wagon and a little known bare-bones British sports car called a Caterham.

These aren't cars for showing off. These are cars for driving. Because John Krafcik loves to drive.

He makes no secret about it and he sees no conflict. This is not like the owner of a vegan restaurant grilling bison burgers on his back deck.

"You ask a room full of people: 'Do you love to drive?' and most people actually would raise their hand," he said while he drove. "But if we ask the question a slightly different way, 'Do you love commuting? Do you love driving on your commute?' I think most people would say. 'Eh, not so much.'"

That's the problem Waymo is trying solve, he said. The company doesn't want to do away with driving altogether, just the driving that's unpleasant and boring, he explained. Starting soon, Waymo will be making its driverless van rides available to the public in Arizona. From there, the roll out of the service will happen gradually.

"It's going to be a long, long time before someone takes my hands off the steering wheel of a car," he said. "That's just not something that's going to happen in the short term."

It's not only that he, personally, doesn't want to give up driving. He actually doesn't even think it's possible for Waymo or any company to entirely replace human drivers in all conceivable scenarios — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Human drivers aren't that hard to improve upon, as Krafcik pointed out.

"I've got these two eyes. That's all I've got, these two optical sensors, and it's amazing that we can drive so well just with these simple optical sensors and they're augmented a little bit with these three pieces of glass otherwise known as mirrors, and this is my full compliment of sensing technology," he said.

On top of that, a human driver's optical sensors are attached to only one brain. Each human must learn to drive on his or her own.

A Waymo driverless van has video cameras, laser and radar that can see and sense things in all directions around the vehicle continuously. And the cars learn from the experience of every other Waymo car, creating, as Krafcik puts it, "the world's most experienced driver." Each day, the Waymo driver adds another 25,000 miles to its pool of experience, more than the average person covers in two years.

But that doesn't mean the technology is perfect.

Krafcik parked his 1993 Porsche at Alice's Restaurant, about 30 minutes from Waymo's headquarters. I had suggested someplace closer, knowing he's a busy executive and probably pressed for time. But, like I said, he likes to drive.

We sat outside with a couple of sodas and a box of fries and talked about what automated cars, even with all those sensors and all that experience, won't be able to do. Engineers talk about L5, or Level 5 autonomous driving. That's as autonomous as any vehicle could possibly be. At L5, you could get into a car at any time under any weather conditions and say "Take me...." anywhere. But L5 is impossible, said Krafcik.

"That's a somewhat unreasonable expectation," he said, "and it's sort of not even necessary because we so rarely drive from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile. We just don't do that."

The highest level of automation you can buy now is Level 3, at best. That means the car can drive itself in certain conditions, such as on a multi-lane highway, but with a human driver always paying attention and ready to take over.

Waymo cars will operate in designated areas on familiar roads. Those designated areas will widen over time covering more places. But Krafcik doesn't foresee a day when the need for human drivers will be entirely obviated. But that need will diminish.

Even then, though, no one will take the steering wheel from Krafcik's hands. Not even his own company's creations.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 263023

Reported Deaths: 5752
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17675191
Hinds16813331
Harrison14224204
Rankin11167219
Jackson10839190
Lee9050144
Madison8568168
Jones6668114
Forrest6177124
Lauderdale6097192
Lowndes5518120
Lafayette516298
Lamar503965
Washington4923125
Bolivar4104109
Oktibbeha405982
Panola384881
Pontotoc376258
Warren3674103
Monroe3671108
Union355663
Marshall355270
Neshoba3485154
Pearl River3468105
Leflore3111109
Lincoln305688
Hancock291862
Sunflower291475
Tate279662
Alcorn272354
Pike268981
Itawamba268063
Scott259648
Yazoo255256
Prentiss252553
Tippah249250
Copiah249049
Coahoma248054
Simpson242171
Leake237367
Grenada223272
Marion222073
Covington219973
Adams213671
Wayne212634
Winston207371
George204339
Newton199046
Attala196963
Tishomingo194161
Chickasaw189044
Jasper179538
Holmes171768
Clay165837
Tallahatchie156235
Stone151425
Clarke147262
Calhoun140822
Smith129226
Yalobusha122034
Walthall114337
Greene113529
Noxubee112926
Montgomery111636
Carroll106622
Lawrence106517
Perry104531
Amite101426
Webster96124
Tunica88821
Claiborne88325
Jefferson Davis88329
Benton85623
Humphreys84624
Kemper80520
Quitman7089
Franklin69917
Choctaw63213
Wilkinson59825
Jefferson56821
Sharkey45117
Issaquena1606
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 439442

Reported Deaths: 6657
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson644371007
Mobile31435569
Madison28158217
Tuscaloosa21492275
Montgomery19873332
Shelby19248132
Baldwin17128189
Lee13137107
Morgan12594142
Etowah12070181
Calhoun11496206
Marshall10420123
Houston8988164
Limestone832081
Cullman8257124
Elmore8183110
DeKalb7871107
Lauderdale7847107
St. Clair7808130
Talladega6445112
Walker6028183
Jackson599145
Colbert548694
Blount546286
Autauga535862
Coffee460764
Dale409685
Franklin374150
Russell354215
Chilton344373
Covington338580
Escambia334544
Tallapoosa3143109
Dallas312996
Chambers303470
Clarke298036
Pike262431
Lawrence253355
Marion253161
Winston233342
Bibb222348
Geneva210247
Marengo208231
Pickens199531
Hale184944
Barbour180538
Fayette177829
Butler173160
Cherokee165131
Henry159525
Monroe152021
Randolph145536
Washington141727
Clay129746
Crenshaw123745
Macon121937
Cleburne121525
Lamar119922
Lowndes114836
Wilcox107922
Bullock103328
Perry99918
Conecuh97822
Sumter90527
Greene77923
Coosa63418
Choctaw51924
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